Spain/France Trip: Barcelona (Days 12-15)

Itinerary:

Barcelona (Days 12-15):

Thursday – or twelfth day – was a long, long day in the car.  We were headed to Barcelona, via Andorra, which was around seven hours of driving!  Ahead of time, we had chosen to eat lunch in Andorra to break up the drive and to check off another micro-country on our quest to visit them all.  The drive was full of, you guessed it, tolls!  Although, the portion of the drive into and out of Andorra was surprisingly toll-free.  There isn’t much to say about most of the drive, as it was just that – driving on the highway.  img_7064Andorra, however, was more interesting that I had expected.  The road up to Andorra was in the mountains and very scenic.  I’ll confess that I didn’t know much about Andorra, so I was surprised by all of the snow!  Now I know why there were so many ski resorts!  This place was teeming with skiers and traffic!  Starving and needing to use the restroom, we saw a lot of the city from the car, drove in, and found a place to eat quickly.  We didn’t realize that we weren’t really in the main area of town, but it didn’t matter.  We had a pleasant lunch at Hotel Roc Blanc in Les Escaldes and then got back in the car, filled up the gas tank (which apparently is a big deal here due to Andorra’s lower gas prices), and continued on our journey to Barcelona.  The rest of the drive was fairly scenic, but slow moving on the windy roads until we finally hit the main highway again.

We arrived at the Barcelona airport to drop off the car around 5:30pm.  We easily bought round-trip tickets (so we didn’t have to worry about it on Sunday morning coming back) from a kiosk for the bus into the center of town.  The bus ride was about 45 minutes in moderate traffic, and it dropped us off at Placa de Catalunya. The minute we walked off the bus we realized we were in a very touristy area.  fullsizeoutput_16There were mobs of people everywhere!  Was it just this area?  Was the entire city this way?  We soon found out it was the latter; the entire city was flooded with tourists.  We weaved in and around people as we made our way with our luggage in tow to our hotel, Hotel Colon, right across from the Catedral de Barcelona.  The walk took around ten minutes.  We had booked a superior room with a terrace and views of the cathedral, and we were not disappointed.  The terrace was quite spacious, with a great vantage point to observe the square and gaze at the cathedral.

Exhausted from driving and dodging people all the way to the hotel, our only focus was to find somewhere to eat that wasn’t too far away.  Some quick research led us to Pla, which was only a short walk away in the Gothic Quarter.  Pla seemed like a low-key yet trendy and nice restaurant.  Feeling comfortable and content with our selection, we chose the tasting menu with wine pairing, which seemed like a good value (and it was).  The food was good and the wine pairings unique, showcasing Catalan wines that were quite tasty.  We took our time eating, soaking up the calm ambiance and reflecting on our trip thus far.  Back at the hotel, stepping onto our terrace, we were welcomed by a magnificent view of the cathedral all lit up at night!  We took a few pictures and then quickly crashed from our long day.

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Our plan for Friday – our thirteenth day – was to visit everything not related to Gaudi (that was reserved for Saturday).  We started off the morning by visiting the Catedral de Barcelona right across from our hotel.  Now was the best time to visit as it was early, and there weren’t a lot of people in line to go in.  fullsizeoutput_19The cathedral was beautiful in its Gothic architecture.  It definitely seemed Spanish, as it reminded me of the cathedrals we had been to in Seville and Granada.  We walked around the church, took a few pictures, and then set out for Montjuic.  First stop on the way was walking down Las Ramblas, making a quick stop to take a picture of Palau Guell, heading to the Columbus monument close to the water.  From here, we headed over to Montjuic.  We climbed numerous stairs and steep trails leading to the top, where we were greeted by a view over the city at Placa de l’Armada.

Our next stop was to see the Olympic buildings.  This was something I wanted to see because the 1992 Olympics were the first that I remember watching as a child.  I was obsessed with the gymnastics, watching Shannon Miller and Tatyana Gutsu battle it out in the all-around.  fullsizeoutput_1aI had never seen any Olympic complexes.  I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it was both neat and kind of boring at the same time.  I really liked seeing the torch, walking in the stadium, and walking around the fountain in front of the stadium.  However, the buildings are obviously old, and there isn’t really anything do to besides see the area.  So, we walked around a bit and then headed toward MNAC (MNAC stands for Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya).  We didn’t go into the museum, but the building itself and surrounding fountains are absolutely beautiful.  MNAC sits atop a hill with several sets of fountains cascading down the hill in front of it.  We walked down along the fountains, taking several pictures along the way.

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Starting to get hungry, we took a long walk through town back to the Las Ramblas.  We had planned on eating lunch in La Boqueria, but were disappointed to see that it was closed.  So, we looked up nearby places on Google Maps, hoping to find something nearby with decent reviews.  We chose La Luna, which was located a little ways back in an alley in the Gothic Quarter.  fullsizeoutput_1cThey were just opening when we arrived, and, at first, we were a little nervous that not many people were there.  But, that quickly changed, as the restaurant was packed full before we left.  We again chose a prix fixe lunch menu with several different choices each, and we enjoyed each course.  From here, we walked around the Gothic Quarter, stumbling upon cute squares and admiring the Gothic architecture.  Having seen what we had set out to accomplish already that day, we decided to go ahead and go to Casa Batllo as we still had plenty of time left in the afternoon.

Not sure about when we would be able to visit, we had purchased a ticket in advance that allowed us to visit at any time while we were in Barcelona.  Only having time to visit one of Gaudi’s houses on this trip, we chose Casa Batllo based on a combination of online reviews and pictures.  fullsizeoutput_1eWe were happily able to enter right away as promised on our ticket.  We declined the audioguides, which were heavily pushed on us, as we are not really audioguide people.  The inside was very crowded with people and definitely detracted from experiencing the building.  It was quite difficult to move around the house, and running into, and bumping, people was inevitable.  Coupling this crowdedness with everyone trying to take their selfies made for a quite frustrating time getting around.   Tourism challenges aside (I know these are going to be present at popular attractions), I was pretty disappointed in Casa Batllo.  The house was so empty (no furniture), it was hard to envision its functionality and how it would have looked when someone was actually living there.  Don’t get me wrong; there were definitely some interesting features (I really liked the blue atrium that the stairs went around), but they seemed much more few and far between than I would have liked.  fullsizeoutput_1dI felt like I was constantly looking for something I missed thinking this couldn’t possibly be all there is to see.  Ascending to the top, the outdoor roof area was fairly small and, somewhat counterintuitively, provides a difficult vantage point to see all of the sculptures.  We walked out of the house feeling a little ripped off by how expensive the tickets were and how little there was to see.  I still think the most interesting part of the house is the front exterior – no ticket needed!

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Already being on Passeig Gracia, we walked up to La Padrera to see the outside and then walked back toward the hotel, taking in the interesting buildings along the way.  We wanted to grab some snacks and wine from the supermarket on the basement level of El Corte Ingles; however, being Good Friday, everything was closed.  Feeling a little down from our Gaudi let down and closed supermarkets, we headed back to the hotel where we spotted a gelato stand in the corner of the square.  Gelato will definitely suffice for a quick snack!

We went back to the hotel to relax on our terrace and figure out our dinner plans.  We wanted somewhere nearby, as we wanted to walk and not get a taxi.  We decided on City Restaurant located in the Grand Hotel Central Barcelona.  fullsizeoutput_21The restaurant was a little more formal than we were expecting, but we didn’t have a problem or receive any looks for being in a pair of dark jeans and a nice shirt.  We walked into the bar, where the hostess led us downstairs to the restaurant.  The ambiance was modern chic with a calm, comfortable vibe.  The service was excellent here, and the food very good.  Their overall value for money was probably a little less than Pla from the night before, but we still ate a wonderful meal that would have cost much more in the States.  We enjoyed our meal very much and felt lucky with our decisions on dinner so far in Barcelona.

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Saturday – the fourteenth day – our last day in Barcelona and our last day of the trip, was set aside for the main attraction in Barcelona, Sagrada Familia.  We had pre-purchased our tickets (I highly recommend doing so) for 9:30am.  We got an early start, grabbed some pastries from a bakery, walked around making our way toward the Arc de Triomf, and then made the decision to walk all the way to Sagrada Familia.  We were kind of in no-man’s land as far as subway routes go, and walking to the subway wasn’t really going to save us much time overall.  Arriving a few minutes early was a good thing, as it took us a few minutes to figure out where to go.  We found our entrance and needed to wait until our scheduled time (just a few minutes) before going in.  That was fine because it gave us a chance to admire the incredible building before us.  I’m not sure one can truly appreciate how large and ornate Sagrada Familia is without seeing it in person.  The church is enormous and is covered in intricate detail.  The plethora of carvings and figures on the exterior are like nothing I have ever seen.  It was finally time for us to enter this daunting piece of architecture.

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We approached the doorway, and I fell in love with the beautiful green leaves and pink flowers that were almost life-like and seemed to sparkle in the light.  Then we walked in; wow.  No picture will ever do this place justice.  So many things catch your eye:  The gorgeous stained-glass windows painting the walls and floors with color, the very ornate, soaring ceiling, the completely unique architecture and style of basically every nook and cranny.  We walked around in awe the entire time we were there.  Be sure to take a peek outside in the back to see the famous sculptures on the exterior.  I don’t know if it was because we had an earlier appointment or if the number of people allowed inside at one time is very well-controlled, but we loved not having to bump into everyone while appreciating this immense work of art.

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Our ticket to Sagrada Familia also included a trip up the towers.  Only one side was open at the time of our trip, the nativity side, so we didn’t have to make the choice when buying our tickets.  fullsizeoutput_2eA very small elevator allowing at most eight people at a time takes you up to the towers at your designated time.  There aren’t very many areas to walk around in the towers, and where to go isn’t immediately obvious.  Some additional signage on where – and in which direction – to walk would help.  We walked where we could sneak glimpses of the church’s exterior.  This whole tower experience was fairly anti-climactic.  There wasn’t much to see or do other than being able to say you went up the towers.  Back down in the church, we took our last longing gazes at the masterpiece and then left.

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We were pretty hungry by this point, and there was a McDonald’s nearby (of course, because this is a major tourist attraction).  So, we decided now was a good time to try McDonald’s in Spain.  Nothing too interesting, but they did have those same touchscreen ordering kiosks that they had in France, which we liked.  We ate lunch and then headed up to Park Guell.  fullsizeoutput_31Now, I’ll say that Park Guell posed some planning challenges for us.  I had kept an eye on how quickly tickets sold out during the time leading up to our trip, and it seemed as long as you bought tickets the day before then you should be in good shape.  Well, being Easter weekend, I was very wrong.  I had checked tickets when we first arrived in Barcelona and everything was already sold out.  I wasn’t sure if that meant only pre-booked tickets were sold out and you could still wait in line for a ticket or if that meant ALL tickets for the day were sold out.  We walked to the park anyway, as there are still areas to see other than the ticket-only monumental section and hoped maybe there were some sort of tickets we could still buy.  After a very long, uphill walk from Sagrada Familia (tip:  just take a taxi), we arrived at the park.

I went up to the ticket office and was told what I feared, there were no tickets left and no way to see the monumental section of the park that day.  fullsizeoutput_32I was definitely disappointed, but figured we should still make the best of it and see what we could (after all, we did just walk FOREVER to get here).  We walked around all of the free area of the park and snuck some views of the monumental section from above.  On our way out, we walked by the front of the park to snap some pictures of the unique buildings there.  I was pretty disappointed that we didn’t get to see the monumental section; however, I feel like we were actually able to see quite a bit from the unrestricted area, which made me feel a little better.  After a fairly long walk to the closest subway station, we took the subway back toward Las Ramblas, where we wanted to try to see La Boqueria one more time.

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Alas, it was open!  This place was packed with people and hundreds of different food stalls.  Maneuvering around people to see a good portion of the market was quite a challenge.  fullsizeoutput_36We walked around the best we could and settled on trying some of the ubiquitous fresh juice from one of the stalls.  The juice was delicious – a refreshing treat.  Feeling pretty tired and knowing we had a long day of travel home the next day, we decided to get some snacks (El Corte Ingles was open!) and some wine and go back to the hotel.  We sat on our terrace, enjoying our food and wine, and simply relaxed.  As the sun set, we worked on packing up our luggage, when we heard some music coming from outside.  We looked out from the terrace and saw that a Semana Santa procession was beginning.

On our first trip to Spain (also over Easter) we had watched a similar procession in Seville, having to find a spot to stand hours before it began.  Our terrace, however, was the perfect place to watch!  fullsizeoutput_39We saw the familiar traditional robes, crosses, and staffs, as well as the beautiful floats.  I still can’t imagine carrying those massive floats on my back; it must be incredibly difficult to sustain for the extended period of time required.  We watched as long as we could and then had to leave for dinner.  We wanted something fairly quick and low-key for dinner, as we wanted to get to sleep fairly early.  We went to Stoke, a tapas bar in the Gothic Quarter, and we were seated at a small table in a back room that provided a little separation from the bar area.  The tapas here were good, although fairly traditional instead of innovative.  We ordered some of our favorites as well a few new dishes we had yet to try.  We didn’t linger long before heading back to the hotel to get to sleep.

The next morning – day fifteen – we checked out of the hotel and went to Placa Catalunya to wait for the bus (if you recall, we had a roundtrip ticket).  We arrived at the airport a little early, waited for our flight, and home we went!  Overall, Barcelona wasn’t our favorite place in the world.  It seemed to have a strong party culture and well, we just aren’t that type of people.  The food was great, and Sagrada Familia was amazing; however, that was about the extent of the things we really enjoyed in Barcelona.

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Looking back, this trip probably had the most ups and downs of any trip we’ve taken thus far.  This was the first time one of us was sick, the first time we had to cancel scheduled plans, and the first time a city we were looking forward to seeing (and had heard nothing but good things about) was essentially a disappointment (Barcelona).  However, we loved San Sebastian, ate one of the best meals of our lives at Martin Berastegui, learned about and tasted incredible Bordeaux wine, saw beautiful landscapes dotted with castles in France, and saw one of the most awesome artistic and architectural masterpieces in Sagrada Familia.  While it is inevitable to come across a few places that aren’t really your cup of tea, I am always grateful to have had the opportunity to go somewhere new and have first-hand knowledge of a place.  We had several family and friends look at us in shock when we told them we didn’t really enjoy Barcelona very much (besides Sagrada Familia), but that’s okay – that’s just our humble opinion.  People enjoy different things.